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Babylon 5 In Depth – A Primer

Why do people always ask “Star Trek or Star Wars”? That’s a question that overlooks some real tyrants of the sci-fi scene and there are more than enough of us who can rattle off a few dozen series, films, perhaps books, and even computer games (why not, it’s a valid art form) that equal or exceed them both for quality.

Over the next few weeks I want to take this stage to showcase one of the titans of science fiction and a personal favourite, J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, addressing its depth, its cultural impact, its influence on sci-fi that followed, and beginning today with a quick primer on exactly what it is we’re discussing.

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The Babylon Project

As with most sci-fi universes, we must establish the place of humans, and the very first words declare the beginning of the Third Age of humanity. We have a healthy collection of colonies off-homeworld, a handful of military victories, one military mystery, and a population of telepaths. Classic stuff.

Our pilot, The Gathering, is a feature length episode standing fully outside of the first season. In it we witness the coming together of the many races from around the galaxy onto an enormous space station, a diplomatic and trade outpost constructed by the Earth Alliance with financial aid from the biggest alien players around, Centauri, Minbari, Narns and Vorlons, along with the League of Non-Aligned worlds (basically the miscellaneous draw of aliens for which they didn’t have many plot-lines).

Babylon 5 is the last of the Babylon stations that was built, a last attempt at a project that many were determined to see fail. Three of the Babylon stations were sabotaged, the fourth disappeared in mysterious circumstances. We may find out how that happened in later episodes. In The Gathering we witness the final attempt to scuttle the Babylon project once and for all, as the final ambassador arrives. An assassination attempt, and a frame-job on the new commander to close the deal.

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Minor note for anyone with the sudden urge to watch the series, as with any pilot you should watch The Gathering with a degree of caution, plenty of things change from the pilot to the fully authorised series, style changes made for the sake of time and production costs, cast changes and the like. There’s nothing too dramatic, and indeed one particular change works its way into the plot rather nicely later in the series, take careful note of the station’s chief of medical staff and commit his face to memory.

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Following the set up, the rest of the series has an enormous over-arcing plot that really needs to be watched in order. There are few episodes than can be watched individually of one another, in fact until the fifth season there are few episodes that one could call “filler” at all. Each member of the main cast has their own story, each of which crosses and intersects around a singular event that will change the galaxy permanently, followed by a final season that gives you a clear idea of how. Even minor details can often have surprising results, perhaps several seasons later.

While our narrative primarily focuses on the here and now… here being neutral territory in deep space light years from Earth and now being 2257-2263… we are given some glimpses into the past, and even into the distant future, so that we have a real feel of age and history to this universe, and consequence to the deeds of it’s people.

We journey deep into politics without losing action and drama, break into high-fantasy levels of science fiction while keeping some grounding in reality through the writing of the characters, and by creating a reality of its own.

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Not Without Flaws

Of course not, and throughout these articles I will not shy from them. Some slapdash acting moments, badly made props, little inconsistencies, poor choices, and of course the limits of making a TV show, especially a science fiction show in the 90’s. Let us not go too deeply into the limping attempts of Straczynski to keep the show going after its commendable run, despite his admirable career outside of his crown jewel.

There was a doomed spin-off plagued by production issues and scheduling hell, a follow-up film I couldn’t even watch, and a few choices that could have been made to secure the series among the absolute heights of sci-fi royalty. And in between grovelling at the feet of its religious subtexts, commentary on modern politics, and some of the greatest dialogues in any television show, I won’t glaze over the problems that have held it back.

But there is a reason why I cite myself as being “raised on Babylon 5” in the same way that some people are raised on Lord of the Rings. It has informed my perspectives on good television, drama, action and fiction in general. And hopefully by the time I’m through people won’t be asking “Star Trek or Star Wars?” without adding “and why is it Babylon 5?”

One response

  1. Good summary, Joel. Babylon 5 was a true space classic. It showed a universe that was not all clean lines and clinical ship interiors such as star trek nor clear bad vs good as Star Wars but the gritty, cynical political ambitions and agendas of different cultures (in this case, worlds) with dirt, betrayal,lies and bribery all in there. There were few clear good or bad guys as we discovered the motivations and agendas of those who had been most manipulative. We had to love and feel sorry for Londo and G’Kar although both committed or backed some less than praiseworthy acts. Far ranging, provoking and non stop, it had something for everyone.

    Yes, there was some cheesy acting, some flippancy at the wrong moments, some just bad episodes but what series doesn’t have them? Overall, worthy of watching right through the seasons. Just don’t bother with the films or “Crusader” the spin off. And the pilot has to be watched with caution, maybe after seeing a few of the first season, even. A lot changed and all for the better.

    And everyone loves Zathros…. I mean Zathros, not Zathros…. not the one.

    Like

    January 20, 2017 at 5:41 pm

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